Nearly all the Oscar pundits are predicting that either "Birdman" or "Boyhood" will take the Best Picture Oscar. (See Gurus O’ Gold). But this year, due to the preferential voting system, it’s possible for another film to win the top prize. The Best Picture voting process is confusing not only to the press but Academy voters as well.
Here’s how a popular film like "Whiplash" or "The Grand Budapest Hotel" could still win.
When the Academy expanded the number of nominees to more than five–they started with ten, then demanded that contenders raise a minimum level of support in the initial round, which has yielded eight or nine slots–they realized that a divided field and a close race could lead to a win for a non-consensus film. So they switched, unique to this category and for the first time in Academy history, to preferential voting in the final contest.
Preferential voting in nominating has been used since the 1930s. (Read: 10 Steps to a Best picture Oscar Nomination.)
Here’s how the voting works.
1. Members are asked to numerically rank each of the nominees in order of their choice (this year one to eight).
2. PriceWaterhouseCooper counts the ballots. If one film is the first choice on a majority of ballots, it’s the winner. This will likely never happen, particularly with more than five nominees. The accountants calculate how many #1 votes each nominee got.
3. The accountants eliminate the films with the fewest first choices, starting with the last place entry. Then that film’s second choice becomes the new first choice for that ballot (among the seven remaining films), and gets added to its total. Then they do a new count to see what is in last place, and the process continues. Another film is dropped, its highest ranking contender still standing gets the vote. And so on until one film gets to 50% votes (even if it means it takes counting the ultimate third place film. Let’s say "Birdman" and "Boyhood" are seventh and eighth on a ballot that is counted as a vote for the (current) third (now lowest) place film. That seventh place vote becomes a vote for "Birdman." So all positions can make a difference.
It’s a simple system, but even after several years use, confusion still abounds. There is really no way to game the system. As long as a voter picks his or her favorite film first, that’s all they need to do. A "Boyhood" fan who likes "Birdman" a lot, but less enough so that she really prefers "Boyhood," isn’t helping that film by listing it eighth, assuming that those are the two final entries. That vote will always be a "Boyhood" vote, whether "Birdman" is second or eighth on that ballot.
In a close year things could get interesting. If two camps have much different tastes, and particularly if some members do misinterpret the system and either rank the other film low or (as is their option) do not list it at all, then things could get interesting. Again, if a film doesn’t get a majority right away, and particularly — as could be possible this year — "Boyhood" and "Birdman" combined don’t have much more than a majority of initial #1 votes, those second and even through seventh place votes could be critical. And among the remaining six nominees, some contenders might have a better chance than others of being sleepers.
Because the system rewards consensus, "American Sniper" and "Selma" will lose. They are the most likely to be hurt because they won’t be most often listed in the top two or three spots. My guess is that in the first round "Sniper" will be among the top three vote getters. But like "Selma" even though there is deep and passionate support, many didn’t like it and will rank it low. And "Selma" could easily have fewer top three votes than several other films, and far more seventh and eight place choices.
Unless it scores unexpectedly high at the start, the blockbuster "American Sniper" is not a likely winner. With a domestic gross more than the other seven nominees combined, it’s the only film that will boost the Oscar show’s ratings. Had it been one of five nominees this year, it could likely have been the favorite under a plurality/most votes over 20% wins system. "Selma" will also have its share of #1 votes, but its lack of support in the branches rules out any chance of being in the running.
"Whiplash," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Imitation Game," and "The Theory of Everything," could still win. "Theory" could fall short. Attention has been focused on Eddie Redmayne’s performance. One can never count out Weinstein and "Imitation." But the "Whiplash" and "Budapest" both scored better than expected nominations and seem to have more passionate and widespread support. Each is competitive in many of their other categories ("Whiplash" will win supporting actor, is competitive for adapted screenplay, film editing and sound mixing; "Budapest" could easily also win four or five as it did at the BAFTAs; "Imitation" seems only competitive in adapted screenplay). Though neither has won significant best film awards (other than "Budapest" getting the Comedy/Musical Golden Globe win over "Birdman,") earlier wins this year might count less than getting many #2 or 3 votes this year. It is theoretically possible that either film (or even the widely liked "Imitation Game") could, after the elimination process, eke out a narrow win.
Let’s say "American Sniper"’s intense support among the guilds and the mainstream Academy give it 25-30% #1 initial votes. You want to try to figure out who will win Best Picture? Try to guess what their #2 votes will be. If they heavily favor one film–say "Whiplash" or "Grand Budapest"–ahead of the others, that film could win Best Picture. If "Boyhood" and "Birdman" voters in large numbers have "Sniper" ahead of the other contenders, it might by the late stages still be standing and have a chance.
The bottom line. Best Picture this year, perhaps more than any of the previous years since the list has been expanded, is going to be decided by the second and further down the line places by those members, perhaps close to a majority, who don’t choose "Birdman" or "Boyhood." It’s not easy to predict, but it does make sense of what will likely be a surprise on Oscar night.